Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Sou. Bapt.Ethics Prof. Breaks w/ Just War Theory

As reported in Associated Baptist Press, Southern Baptist ethicist David P. Gushee has broken with the Just War Tradition–at least to some degree. Gushee is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy and Director of the Carl Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University in Jackson, TN. In June, he had strong criticisms of the war in Iraq from a Just War standpoint.

But Gushee no longer thinks that Christian ministers and leaders, like himself, need to be spending the majority of their time and energy wondering if war X is morally justified.

Rather, returning to the center of our faith in Jesus Christ, Gushee affirms that Christian churches are to be communities of peace, working to make peace in the world.

I have known Dave Gushee since 1994 and this both does and doesn’t constitute a major change for him. He has never been pro-war and has always been in favor of just peacemaking practices. But Gushee, perhaps because of his deep studies of the Holocaust, had always been a strong defender of JWT–and had advocated armed interventions to stop genocides in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Darfur in the Sudan. To say that the church’s primary ethical responsibility in this area is to become communities of peace is a different emphasis. I still have to ask Dave if he now believes all Christians should refrain from military service and become conscientious objectors–as would seem to be the conclusion of this development.

This development also fits with Dave’s strong stand as part of the Religious Campaign Against Torture which aims to stop all torture, beginning with that practiced by Americans, including closing the Gitmo gulag and the secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Dave defended this campaign even in the conservative Christianity Today.

Now, how far does this change give hope for reform within the Southern Baptist Convention? It’s hard to say. Several years back, Dave worked with the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on biomedical issues, but the Commission’s Exec. Director, Richard Land, found Dave too sympathetic with “liberal” perspectives on economic, environmental, and racial justice–and too outspoken in defense of the full equality of women and men. Since refusing to sign the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith & Message, Dave has not been courted by the SBC’s inner circles. But, unlike myself and others, he has remained in the SBC instead of moving to another Baptist group, and teaches at a school known for having a conservative understanding of Baptist faith and life. Does this mean a new openess to peacemaking in the SBC, or will this result in Gushee’s further marginalization? Only time will tell.


August 31, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, just peacemaking, just war theory


  1. I had the privilege of taking Ethics from Dr. Gushee while at Union and I found him to be absolutely compelling as a philosopher and theologian. I did break with him on the death penalty, but he is as solid as any Southern Baptist on abortion and medical ethics. As long as he is at Union, which is quickly becoming the Wheaton of the South, he will be influential in the lives of Southern Baptists. There is no doubt about that.

    Comment by D.R. | September 1, 2006

  2. D.R., I knew Dave before he left for Union and I left for Chicago. We were both students of Glen Stassen and both of us have written things together. Dave, as an egalitarian who had been hired at SBTS just before Mohler became president, took a huge risk and continued to champion women in ministry–which is why he is at Union.

    I have no doubt that he continues to be influential among his students, but he has long felt marginalized by the wider SBC. Richard Land won’t take his calls since he refused to sign the BF& M 2000 with its anti-woman clause and he denounced (in a mild and gentle voice, but still denounced) the SBC’s statements on Jewish-Christian relations as supercessionist.

    My post on Beisner, believe it or not, came about because of research I was doing for Dave to help him prepare for a debate with Beisner over global warming.

    You also don’t agree with Dave economic ethics in which he is much closer to my position.

    So, since you probably were against abortion and euthanasia before taking his classes, just what DID he convince you of?
    You are pro-death penalty, will you now re-look at nonviolence now that Dave is saying,
    “But what I am saying is that the state really does not need more people urging our nation or other nations on to more killing. And that is not what God needs from the church.

    “Precisely as Christians, we need a distinctively Christian witness that calls followers of Jesus back to faithful obedience to the teachings of the Bible. We need to analyze dismal human realities, such as war, in light of what Jesus said about them, rather than using merely worldly categories of thought.

    “We need to weep over the suffering, and to offer compassionate service to broken and terrified human beings, even those classified as our enemies or our friends’ enemies. We need to offer the practical insights of Christ’s teaching to the world’s leaders, and embody that teaching in the life of our faith communities. And we need to keep yearning for, and pointing toward, a better kingdom than any earthly kingdom, when God shall reign, all peoples shall dwell in peace, and every bloody weapon will be laid down at last.”

    Somehow, I don’t see many Southern Baptists following Dave here, do you?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 1, 2006

  3. When I took Dr. Gushee’s class on ethics I was a junior in college with very little understanding of systematic ethics. I knew what I believed and generally why I believed it, but I had not researched it in depth as I should have. Dr. Gushee’s positions challenged me to think critically about the death penalty and about biomedical ethics (especially those related to fertility treatments and abortiofacents). And he especially challenged us in the area of divorce and the advocation of children of divorce, which led me to the stong position I know have on church discipline.

    So, Dr. Gushee challenged me in a lot of ways and I did appreciate his very deep knowledge of the Biblical text. Still, I know nothing of his position on economics (as we didn’t cover that in a survey class) and he obviously held to Just War theory at that time (which I don’t think he is completely rejecting here, but rather simply critiquing).

    As for the quotes you posted and your question about Southern Baptists not supporting Dr. Gushee’s position, I am not so sure that Southern Baptists would outright reject what Dr. Gushee says here. Southern Baptists have often been characterized by what some in the leadership say, but surely you know that the landscape of the SBC is riddled with differences in opinions on any number of issues. Simply because Richard Land says something doesn’t mean anyone will believe it to be true (I have found that Dr. Land is probably the least influential of all the institutional leaders in the SBC — with no one I know even listening to the guy).

    My main point here is that no one can speak for all Southern Baptists, but I would tend to agree with Dr. Gushee here and I don’t think this is just because he said it. I have felt a similar way for the whole Iraqi War, but I because I don’t lean towards an extreme “Cindy Sheehan” position, I am labeled as a war-hawk or war-monger. I don’t advocate war and I think war is the last option, but I generally believe that nations can’t go around violating the rights of their citizens and others without consequences from the international community (as it is the responsibility of the strong to advocate for the weak). Sometimes that unfortuantely leads to war. And when it does, I think it is appropriate to label it just, even if it is not prudent or even if it was rash (as in the case of the Iraqi War). That doesn’t make one a war-monger to do so.

    Comment by D.R. | September 4, 2006

  4. ONCE there was much diversity in the SBC–but these days diversity is seen as automatically equaling heresy. You noted that yourself about the alcohol dispute and one sees it again in the flap over Mckissic’s chapel address at SWBTS on glossalalia (something I have experienced a time or two).

    Land may not be influential in your circles, but he is able to pick up a phone to the White House and get the president–something no non-fundamentalist at the old Christian Life Commission could ever do, no matter who was in office. If Land doesn’t like you, as he doesn’t Dave, then the convention will not use your stuff on ethics matters. Notice that Dave Gushee’s recent writings have not included any Broadman & Holman publications.

    Although I hardly consider Cindy Sheehan extreme (unpolished in public presentation, yes, extreme, no), I also don’t think you are a warmonger because you subscribe to JWT. I have to wonder about any JWTer who doesn’t see how far Iraq strays from that tradition, though.
    Sheehan, in my opinion, stands in the great American tradition of dissent–in a line with Thoreau, Mark Twain, Mother Jones, Dorothy Day, Dave Dellinger, etc. It is a tradition that has made the powerful in both parties uneasy, but no less a Republican that Teddy Roosevelt defended it against those who tried to silence anti-war critics during WWI. And TR was certainly no pacifist!)

    I’m surprised that a survey of Christian ethics would omit economic justice–a major biblical concern–and dwell so much on biomedical issues which are, naturally enough, unmentioned in Scripture. I’ll have to ask Dave about that.

    As to war, this is a quote from an email to me earlier today:

    [Union University officials higher than Dave]had vetoed a debate here this spring anyway on the war issue…but it is true that I am seeing shrinking daylight between my position and yours on this one. I am increasingly believing that Christian discipleship is defined by resistance to violence.

    I could hardly have said it better myself. I am sad, though, that Dave & I won’t get to follow through on our friendly debate between nonviolence and JWT at Union because I think that would have been a great learning experience for students–among other things on how Christians can debate such and still remain friends. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 4, 2006

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